The Character Movement

Joe's meeting with F.W. de Klerk in South Africa

A Lesson in Empathy from South Africa’s F.W. de Klerk

By Joe Cavanaugh, Youth Frontiers Founder and CEO

This school year, with the support of our Board of Directors, I’ve been able to step back and spend time in some fascinating places with the intent to “see the other more completely” and build the vision for the next 30 years of Youth Frontiers. Recently, I had the opportunity to study, volunteer and work in South Africa, meeting with many amazing people who are doing good work to heal the deep emotional scars of Apartheid. My experiences and the people that I met have reinforced my belief in the importance of the Youth Frontiers mission and the values we teach students every day: moral courage, empathy and respect for human dignity.

During my time there, I had the opportunity to meet with the former president of South Africa, F.W. de Klerk. He shared about his work with Nelson Mandela and how instrumental they were in preventing an all-out civil war in the 1990s by ending Apartheid.

In our discussion, a few things stood out to me that are relevant to the work of Youth Frontiers. Mr. de Klerk struck me as a dignified and humble man who knew that his place in history was critical in trying to figure out racial healing both in South Africa and globally. Despite being demonized by both sides – for the black population, he was President and a leader of the party who enforced Apartheid, and for the white ruling class, he was seen as the leader who gave away the power and control – he and Nelson Mandela saved South Africa from falling into the chaos of what Syria and other broken places in our world are experiencing today.

Perhaps the most important lesson from my conversation was Mr. de Klerk’s story of how he and Nelson Mandela had to “wear the shoes of the other” while they were negotiating a solution to the immorality of Apartheid. At the time, Mr. de Klerk knew that the arc of history was against his party and that Apartheid would eventually disintegrate. He was also acutely aware that Nelson Mandela was dedicated to seeing what Mr. de Klerk’s needs were in order to resolve the problem peacefully. He believes “wearing the other’s shoes” – empathy – could solve our world’s many conflicts.

Youth Frontiers is committed to our mission to help students see the other more completely and inspire the next generation of leaders to solve our schools’ and our world’s problems. Your support this year has allowed us to work with a record number of students and educators on a record number of retreats. I am grateful to all of you for your incredible support of our mission.

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